British muscle in on Danes' treaty battle

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The Independent Online
'OH NO, not again,' wrote one of the Danish newspapers last week. There is certainly a feeling of deja vu here as leaked documents and unfortunate comments from the EC Commission in Brussels have reignited the debate over the Maastricht treaty.

With just 11 days to go before Denmark's second referendum on the subject, support is slipping. Though the 'yes' camp still has a relatively wide lead, the events of the past week show that anything can happen - and probably will.

British politicians, British money and the British press are playing a crucial role in feeding this reversal. The two countries have become increasingly intertwined since Britain helped to stop the other EC states putting pressure on Denmark after the first referendum, last June, resulted in a 'no' vote. It then helped to broker a deal at the Edinburgh summit. which seemed to give Denmark opt-outs from the parts of Maastricht that opponents did not like.

The gap between the camps had been comfortably large until last weekend, with 51 per cent of voters in favour of the treaty, 30 per cent against and the rest undecided or not planning to vote, according to the Gallup Institute in Copenhagen. Then the Independent on Sunday and the Sunday Times printed a letter from a senior commission official, which lent support to the arguments of British Euro-sceptic lawyers that the Edinburgh deal was meaningless. Four days later, the 'yes' vote had fallen by 3 per cent and the 'no' vote had risen by the same amount.

Involvement of British newspapers in the Danish campaign goes back to last year, when a report in the Daily Telegraph about commission plans to squeeze out small countries from EC decision-making, boosted the 'no' vote.

The 'no' campaigners say that Denmark's press is, with virtually no exceptions, pro-Maastricht, while the British media are more divided; hence, stories are occasionally slipped to sympathetic British hacks. The 'no' campaign also uses the appearance of stories in British newspapers as an outside source of 'impartiality', quoting comments from the Independent, the Times and the Telegraph in one of its television broadcasts.

But it is not just the British press that has weighed into the debate. Tony Benn and Lord Tebbit are just two of the well-known figures who have played upon the Danish political stage for the treaty's opponents. The 'yes' campaign has not been so fortunate with its British support: Pauline Green, a member of the European Parliament, is well-respected but less recognisable, even to a British audience.

British money is also playing an important role. Sir James Goldsmith, the maverick businessman, took out full-page advertisements in the Danish press against Maastricht last week.

The reason for British involvement on the 'no' side is partly that the campaign in Denmark is underfunded, lacks media contacts and has few big names on its side. British Euro-sceptics have all of these, but there is one thing that they do not have, and that is a referendum.

The marriage of these two groups - the British Euro-sceptics are predominatly Conservative while their Danish counterparts are fond of talking about the 'red-green alternative' - is often bizarre, but both wish to kill the treaty. The Danes have a realistic chance of doing so, whereas the British bill has been driven through Parliament with the whips riding shotgun, and any challenge will have to wait for the lawyers. Because the treaty has to be ratified by all 12 EC states, the Danish battle is also a European battle, and the British Euro- sceptics are fighting on Danish soil as the best way of influencing their own country's future.

The next week will be crucial in determining whether the 'no' camp can press home its advantage after the latest embarrassment for the 'yes' campaign, when the Wall Street Journal Europe printed an interview with Martin Bangemann, the EC's Industry Commissioner, who said that the Community was still hell-bent on federal union. 'A few more like that,' said one Danish official last week, 'and we can kiss goodbye to Maastricht.'